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Strong signals of public distrust in politics and government

August 1, 2012

Editorial: Poll results, nuke protests show public's distrust in gov't at boiling point



Members of the general public have almost simultaneously sent signals from two locations that their distrust in politics has heightened to an alarming level.

In the Yamaguchi gubernatorial election on July 29, a candidate who ran on an anti-nuclear power platform had a strong showing even though he was narrowly defeated by a former bureaucrat backed jointly by the largest opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its former ruling coalition partner New Komeito.

Meanwhile, a large number of people surrounded the Diet Building during a major anti-nuclear power demonstration in Tokyo on the same day.

The fact that an anti-nuclear power candidate gained strong support from those who back no particular political party in a conservative stronghold, and that a huge number of citizens participated in a movement regardless of their party affiliation, have sounded an alarm bell to established political parties, including the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and the LDP. In particular, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who is trying to resume operations at idled nuclear power stations, should face up to the reality that the public's distrust in politics is at boiling point.

The gubernatorial election was a race too close for comfort for the LDP. The party won seats in three of the four single-seat constituencies of the House of Representatives in Yamaguchi Prefecture in 2009 when the DPJ scored a landslide victory. The LDP-New Komeito alliance fielded Shigetaro Yamamoto, a former high-ranking bureaucrat of the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, while the DPJ was unable to field any candidate. Under ordinary circumstances, it would have been an easy win for the LDP and Komeito.

However, the candidacy of Tetsunari Iida, who is an advocate of a breakaway from nuclear power and was the brains behind Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto's political rise, drastically changed the situation. During his campaign, Iida demanded that Chugoku Electric Power Co.'s plan to build the Kaminoseki Nuclear Power Plant in the prefecture be scrapped altogether. The LDP and Komeito was alarmed by the growing support Iida gained from prefectural residents by staging a campaign in a way similar to that of Hashimoto's Osaka Restoration Association. Yamamoto, who is in favor of the promotion of nuclear power, insisted that the Kaminoseki nuclear plant project be frozen in a desperate bid to prevent the issue from emerging as a major point of contention during the race.

Even though Yamamoto was elected, no one should downplay the fact that Iida, who launched a grass-root election campaign without the backing of any established political party, only trailed Yamamoto by about 67,000 votes.

According to exit polls by news organizations including the Mainichi Shimbun, 53 percent of voters who support no particular political party, voted for Iida. The possibility cannot be ruled out that prefectural residents directed their criticism of the Noda Cabinet for trying to reactivate nuclear plants and approving U.S. forces' introduction of the Osprey vertical takeoff and landing aircraft to Japan at the LDP and Komeito, which are established political parties. Following the election, these established parties appear to be increasingly wary of any new political parties, including the Osaka Restoration Association, that are planning to field candidates in the next House of Representatives election in a bid to form a third bloc in the Diet.

These moves are closely related to steady growth in the number of participants in anti-nuclear power demonstrations staged in front of the Prime Minister's Office in Tokyo. A massive number of citizens spontaneously participated in the July 29 demonstration organized by a citizens' network despite the scorching heat, filling streets around the Diet Building.

Large-scale, nonpartisan movements, which had not been observed in Japan for decades, should be viewed as citizens' extremely important expression of their will. These movements reflect citizens' growing concerns that the Noda administration is trying to take the opportunity of the reactivation of two idled reactors at the Oi Nuclear Power Plant in Fukui Prefecture to resume operations at other nuclear plants one after the other and that the government will give up its policy of decreasing Japan's reliance on atomic power to revive its nuclear power promotion policy. The movements also illustrate citizens' anger at the lack of a system under which they can directly reflect their concerns in politics. However, top government officials' response to these moves is extremely slack.

The Mainichi Shimbun's latest opinion poll shows that the approval rating for the Noda Cabinet hit a record low of 23 percent since its inauguration. The sharp decline in the approval rating is attributable to various factors, such as a split of the DPJ and the public's opposition to the consumption tax increase. Noda and members of his Cabinet should take its declining popularity seriously as the public's warning against the high-handed manner in which the Noda administration has decided on policy measures, such as the reactivation of nuclear plants and the introduction of the Osprey aircraft.

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